Sea Kayaking - The Westhinder Challenge

Posted on Friday 21st July, 2017


Dimitri talks us through it...

"We are always looking for a good challenge, preferably one that takes us offshore.

If you look at the Belgian part of the North Sea, there are no islands that you can paddle to (with the exception of the UK). We have to paddle offshore to buoys, navigation marks and towers. Yes, there are towers located in the Southern part of the North Sea. Two of them are drawing our attention. The first, and closest one, is the Oostdyck radar tower.

When visibility is extremely well it can be seen from the beach without binoculars. The radar sends all shipping movements to the Traffic Centre for monitoring - this tower is located some 21 kilometres offshore. What cannot be seen from ashore is the second tower located at the Westhinder sandbank. This one lies just behind the international shipping lane.

The Westhinder beacon warns ships for the danger of the sandbank beneath and also monitors the force of the wind and direction, which is important for the weather forecasts for this area. This tower is located some 32 kilometres offshore. To take on this challenge you’re not only need a good physical condition and stamina, you also have to know more than basic navigation.

There is always a strong tidal stream that pushes you constantly off track, the stream is never in your favour. Taking a break, even a short one, relentlessly pushes you off track. Also the strength of the tidal stream changes every hour so you have to keep a good eye to your bearings. During most of the challenge there is no physical reference to navigate by.

After reaching the first tower, you still have to cross the international shipping lane, which is one of the busiest in the world. Keep in mind that those very large ocean ships probably won't see you or change their course or speed for a sea kayaker. When you have crossed the shipping lane and finally reached the Westhinder beacon, then you have completed the first half of the challenge. The second half, and the most important one, is to get you and your team back to shore safely. If you’re tired you can’t just quit!.

Our team had the privilege of two very experienced and well trained Spanish sea kayakers who were eager to take on this challenge. They travelled all from Spain to Belgium and we spent some days paddling together, before embarking on the challenge.

On Saturday 7 July 2017 we started from the Oostduinkerke beach, at 07:40 am (local time). As an extra difficulty we chose to navigate only using a compass and a sea chart. We did however carry a GPS, just for registration and safety precautions - not for navigation.

We stated our intentions to the Coast Guard by VHF radio before we started. We paddled at a high pace, in order to compensate less for the sideways tidal stream.

It took us seven hours to reach the Westhinder beacon. When we got there we established radio contact with the Coast Guard again, to tell them our position and that we were still in good shape to commence the return journey back to shore. It was 14:30 pm (local time) and we were at the farthest offshore point, being 32 kilometres offshore.  

The second part, also the hardest, was to make it back to the mainland as a team. It was a psychological battle because there was absolutely nothing to see, no references, and no land for hours! The visibility was limited to ten kilometres, which is normal for this area - you have to trust your navigation skills it's as simple as that!

Even though we were tired we still kept the same high pace to counter act the current. We arrived back at Oostduinkerke beach at 20:55 pm (local time).

In the video you can see our GPS track log. The GPS was not turned off during our short breaks. It registered all of our movements during the challenge.

To all other sea kayakers out there who are looking for a tough challenge, this could be what you are looking for. Be well prepared for this one, both physically, mentally and be sure of your navigation skills. I got extremely lucky to do this one with such experienced sea kayakers!

A big thanks to Carlos GARCIA and Santi DOMINGUEZ for joining! It was an honour to be part of this team and to beat this challenge together!"